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Friday, April 07, 2006

At Least 71 Die as Bombers Hit Mosque in Baghdad - New York Times

At Least 71 Die as Bombers Hit Mosque in Baghdad - New York TimesApril 7, 2006
At Least 71 Die as Bombers Hit Mosque in Baghdad

BAGHDAD, Iraq, April 7 — Three suicide bombers, including at least one woman, set off their charges in a sea of Friday worshippers at the head mosque of the most powerful Shiite political party in Iraq, killing at least 71 people and injuring at least 140.

The attack came as the American ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, said in a televised interview that a sectarian war in Iraq could erupt if a unified government is not formed soon, and that such a war could engulf the entire Middle East.

"That's a possibility if we don't do everything we can to make this country work," the ambassador told the BBC. "What's happening here has huge implications for the region and the world."

The explosions at Baratha Mosque, in northern Baghdad, took place just minutes after a prominent imam, Sheik Jalaladin al-Sagheir, delivered a searing speech demanding that the incumbent prime minister step down. The blasts scattered pieces of flesh across the courtyard, decimated stalls of vendors selling religious texts and ripped turquoise tiling from the walls.

The mosque loudspeaker blared a message beseeching people to donate blood, while policemen piled charred bodies into pickup trucks as if they were stacking logs. A white blanket covering one body was so soaked through with blood that someone tossed a black cloth over it.

"I was inside, so I fell to the ground," Nadhum al-Bahadeli, 44, a businessman whose white shirt was splattered with blood across one shoulder, said as he helped to clear debris. "Other people were beneath me. When I stood up, I saw lots of dead people scattered across the courtyard, both men and women."

A guard showed a reporter a piece of scalp with long brown hair that he said came from the first bomber, a woman in black robes who had detonated her bomb at the outer gate. Panic erupted, and worshippers who had been trying to leave streamed back towards the main courtyard. Two other bombers slipped in during the chaos and exploded their bombs by the separate prayer areas for men and women, mosque and security officials said.

Shiite and Sunni leaders, as well as Mr. Khalilzad, called for restraint, fearful that the attack would unleash a wave of sectarian violence like the one that left hundreds dead following the bombing of a Shiite shrine in February. The well-guarded Baratha Mosque is the main religious center for the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, an Iranian-backed party that heads the Shiite bloc.

It was clear that the explosions went to the very heart of the Shiites' sense of victimhood, as have scores of other major attacks during the past three years of civil strife. On Thursday, a car bomb exploded just hundreds of yards from the golden-domed Imam Ali shrine in Najaf, killing at least 10 people.

"The Shia are being targeted in this dirty sectarian war," Sheik Sagheir said in a raspy voice during a telephone interview with the Al Arabiya network. "The world is watching as if what is happening means nothing."

In his Friday prayer speech just before the explosions, the white-turbaned sheik had called for the prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, to withdraw his bid to hold onto his job in the next government.

"There are rules in the political game, and he who can't read them will lose," Sheik Sagheir said. Last Sunday, the sheik said in a telephone interview that Mr. Jaafari should abdicate to break the deadlock in forming a new government, a demand that fractured the religious Shiite bloc, which dominates the Parliament.

Mr. Sagheir's party, the Supreme Council, is offering one of its deputies, Vice-President Adel Abdul Mahdi, as the new nominee for prime minister. Mr. Abdul Mahdi lost to Mr. Jaafari by one vote in a secret ballot in February among the 130 members of the Shiite bloc. Mr. Jaafari has the backing of Moktada al-Sadr, the rebellious cleric who despises the Supreme Council. Both Mr. Sadr and the Supreme Council have formidable militias that have clashed in open street battles.

But it appeared that the mosque attack was the work of jihadists aligned with the Sunni-led insurgency rather than that of Mr. Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army. Sadr followers were at the compound talking politics with mosque officials right after Friday prayers and may well have ended up among the dead or injured. In addition, the tactic of suicide bombings in Iraq is traditionally associated with Sunni extremists.

"Those who did this are trying to bend our people from continuing on their course," Maj. Gen. Muhammad Neima, the head of the operations room at the Interior Ministry, said as he stood in the wreckage. "But the people of this country have grown accustomed for a while now to being slaughtered, and we feel proud that we're sacrificing ourselves and are getting closer to God."

"The suicide bombers have turned themselves into gatekeepers to heaven," he added.

Talks to form a full, four-year government have been stalled for months, with the main Sunni Arab, Kurdish and secular blocs in the 275-member Parliament demanding that the Shiites force Mr. Jaafari to withdraw. The American and British governments have also increased the pressure, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Jack Straw, the British foreign minister, visiting last weekend to demand a resolution soon. But in recent days, Mr. Jaafari has insisted that he will stay in power because he was chosen in a democratic process.

In his interview, Mr. Khalilzad said that although politicians from different groups were opening up to each other, the general population was increasingly moving toward "polarization along sectarian lines."

An Iraqi employee of The New York Times contributed reporting for this article.

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